The discovery could lead to new ways to detect and predict a woman’s risk of developing the disease.
The study, published in the journal PLOS Medicine, found that in more than 90 per cent of endometrial cancers a gene called HAND2 was covered in methylation tags, switching it off.
This could provide a link to endometrial cancer, as HAND2 is normally active in the healthy tissue that lines the uterus – called the endometrium – where it balances the effects of the hormone oestrogen.
Oestrogen can trigger cell growth in the endometrium and must be tightly controlled to prevent cells multiplying excessively.
HAND2 methylation was by far the most common change seen in patients with endometrial cancer and the researchers found that patients with pre-cancerous growths had higher levels of HAND2 methylation in the endometrium. A high level of methylation also predicted a poor response to progesterone treatment.
Professor Martin Widschwendter, a lead researcher on the study, said: “Our work provides clear evidence that it is not only genetic alterations which trigger and lead to cancer but that epigenetic alteration can also be the initiating step.”
Professor Bob Brown, a Cancer Research UK expert in epigenetics, said: “This study shows the potential importance of epigenetic regulation in cancer and adds to a growing list of epigenetic markers that show promise but still require further testing.”
“Genetic markers are already being used for some cancers to help select treatments and epigenetic markers such as DNA methylation may be just as informative as genetic markers.”
“More work will be needed to see if this potential endometrial cancer marker could be used to decide which patients might benefit from a particular treatment or even help develop new treatments in the future.”
He also said that larger studies will allow researchers to decide how useful these markers could be and also help develop kinder, safer treatments for endometrial cancers.
Source: Press Association 2013